TAORMINA, Sicily — Days before President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the administration’s message to allies would be: "America first" does not mean "America alone."
But over the course of the nine-day trip, which wraps up Saturday with a stop at a U.S. naval base in Italy, Trump has seemed happiest when the focus is on him — like the red carpet rollout for his arrival in Riyadh, followed by a sword-dancing display in his honor.
In Europe, where he’s attended group meetings with other world leaders — first in Brussels at the European Union and NATO and now at the G-7 summit in Sicily — Trump has appeared less at ease.
While he avoided any major gaffes or serious diplomatic breaches, Trump’s lack of rapport with European leaders raises serious questions about his ability to effectively team up with critical U.S. allies.
“Like when there’s a new strange kid in the class nobody likes,” said a senior EU official who was briefed on the closed NATO meetings in Brussels. “You behave civilly when teachers [media] watch but don’t spend time with him in private because he’s so different.”
Trump’s discomfort has been particularly obvious in comparison to European leaders, who move easily in a pack. At NATO or at the European Council, they routinely attend dinners with 30 leaders around the table. They have posed for countless “family photographs.” Attending joint news conferences and sharing the spotlight are old habits.
By contrast, Trump at one point was caught on camera apparently pushing past the prime minister of Montenegro during the NATO gathering to be at the front for the group photograph.
Trump has been at his best in one-on-one sessions, like his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and spoke glowingly in Sicily about his “close partnership and collaboration, and friendship” with the new president.
Another senior EU official said Trump did fine in a smaller meeting with the bloc’s top leaders, Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “He was very pleasant, he was very easygoing,” this official said. “He was welcoming everybody, greeting everybody. ‘Thank you all guys, you did a great job.’ Very sort of American.”
Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, said Friday that Trump had made a concerted effort to engage with his fellow leaders at the G-7.
“He offered the opportunity to open up the conversation, he yielded to all of the leaders in the room, wanting to hear their opinions on trade,” Cohn told reporters. “He literally let all of the leaders go around the room at least once, some of them spoke multiple times before he talked about his views on trade."
But even some of the individual meetings had their awkward moments, like when Trump, standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, volunteered that he hadn’t specified Israel as the source of secret intelligence he was reported to have shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent Oval Office visit.
In his meeting with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump effusively praised him for his victory over far-right contender Marine Le Pen. The American president went so far as to say that he’d been rooting for Macron, according to French reports — though Trump said days before the first round of of the French election that he thought Le Pen was the “strongest” candidate on border issues and terrorism.
The Middle East leg of the trip may have been easier for Trump because many of the nuts and bolts were nailed down in advance. Before he stepped off the plane, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was formally announced on the trip.
On the Europe leg, allies wanted answers from Trump on questions like whether the U.S. would stay committed to the Paris accord on climate change. They also were unable to come up with a deliverable, say on increasing NATO’s counterterrorism efforts, that Trump could celebrate as clearly as the Saudi arms deal.
While Trump dodged a commitment on the Paris agreement before the G-7 and complained about Germany’s advantage on trade, he charged into the NATO conference with a clear message: pay up. He accused the Europeans of being “unfair” to U.S. taxpayers, opting to make a pitch to his base in the U.S. over building new friendships with allies.
Efforts by some of the Europeans to smooth over the divide seemed to fall flat, such as when European Council President Tusk, tried to joke that the U.S. was lucky not to have two presidents like the EU.
Instead of laughing, Trump replied: “I know.” On his way out, Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who is still working to perfect his English, tried some idiomatic English on Trump, saying, “See you on the road in Taormina.” He might just as well have said “Do widzenia.”